| With our Jazz Shabbat around the corner: in just an hour or so – I was reflecting on the first time I truly heard music. I grew up in a very musical family. Between my mother’s regular crooning around the house and the hi-fi playing show tunes and the occasional Richard Tucker renditions of Jewish and American faves, there was always music in the background. Whenever we went on car trips of 25 minutes or more, we’d sing rounds. “Hey ho, nobody home…”, “Frere Jacques,” “You are my sunshine,” were just some that I can recall. We’d also write and arrange Stern specials: “Under the Tunnel,” for instance, was written for all of the tunnels we’d go through driving to Pittsburgh from Middletown, CT. Don’t get me started. In my dark childhood, the singing was one of the few moments of family levity.
But I think the first time I actually “heard” music, when I began to understand the power and beauty of music was in 1971, listening to the Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore East. The song was an instrumental, In Memory of Elizabeth Reed. Up to that time I had eschewed instrumentals, always being drawn to the vocals with which I would join in as soon as I learned the words. However, there I was with a pair of heavy duty headphones on that my friend’s brother had bought in Thailand while on leave from Vietnam.
From the moment Dicky Betts begins to play his guitar sounding almost like a violin, the melody gently unfurls. Both drummers are in a jazz groove as Duane Allman joins Betts playing the melody together with him. From there it grows more and more beautiful and intense. I heard the heart of the song, the animating power that connects all of the players in an intimate expression of the ethereal. It blew my mind. It also served as a precursor to my interest in jazz which was to come 2 years later. Ironically, Duane told a reporter while discussing Elizabeth Reed, “that kind of playing comes from Miles and Coltrane, and particularly Kind of Blue. I’ve listened to that album so many times that for the past couple of years, I haven’t hardly listened to anything else.” No wonder it resonated for me!
Music transcends the boundaries of language that can only express so much. Don’t get me wrong: I am a believer in language. I love to write, I love to read, I love poetry. But as Flaubert wrote in Madame Bovary, “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.”
We all work so hard; we push ourselves to the limit. We don’t sleep so well. We worry about the things in the world that cause us anxiety that we can do nothing about. We spend a lot of time covering up. Music can unlock the closed gates, can illumine the places that are cut off from the light. Whether by singing or listening or both, we can let go of language and let the music take over where words end. I can’t remember one conversation I ever had with my father, but I remember singing together with him and my family in our Studebaker Lark station wagon.
I’ve wondered why music means so much more to me in my late middle age than it ever has. It may be that hopeful aspirations are best translated in music. And it may be that fears of loss and sadness are also best expressed through music.
I sometimes cry at live concerts, as well as sitting listening to music. I can’t help it. I hear the music. I know that my prayers in temple are dependent on the melody that carries the words. It means everything to me that the central prayer of our tradition begins with the word, Shema! Listen!